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With the NSA Reform Bill, Privacy Is Not on the Menu

A compromised USA Freedom Act has passed the House vote, but NSA legislative reform will not rescue the public's privacy.
Photo by Steve Rhodes

Journalist Glenn Greenwald stated the obvious while speaking last week at New York's Cooper Union, when he said we should not look within the halls of government for a correction to mass surveillance.

Today, beltway politics proved The Intercept journalist correct. The USA Freedom Act — the NSA reform bill which has garnered the broadest bipartisan and advocacy group support of any such proposal — passed the House, but in a form so compromised it does very little to contain NSA overreach, let alone constrict the tentacles of the surveillance state.


Indeed, the NSA reform bill does little more than nod to the problem of unbounded government spying. And this was the Capitol Hill proposal preferred by privacy advocates. Worse still, while removing some of the NSA's data hoarding privileges, the bill in fact bolsters a corporate-government surveillance nexus. And it is this tight knot of advanced techno-capital and government spying that underpins our surveillance state. NSA programs alone are not responsible for our contemporary circumstance of total surveillance.

By virtue of having to snake through Congressional votes, the USA Freedom Act was always going to be an attenuated effort to stymie public outrage, with scant material consequence — doing just enough to look like it's doing something, doing too little to subvert any political status quo.

The rhetorical force of the bill lies in its claim to end NSA bulk collection of Americans' telephonic metadata. And while it's true, the legislation would remove bulk collection from government hands, demanding instead that telecoms companies keep these data collections themselves — in a form the NSA could survey. So pick your poison: government data hoarding, or corporate data hoarding. Privacy's not on the menu here.

The spy agency would have to go through the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to carry out searches on the data. The White House's last minute additions to the bill changed the language to expand the powers the NSA will maintain to access searches through the FISC.


Civil liberties advocates and an alliance of tech giants, including Google, AOL, and Facebook — clambering, it seems, to save face, despite their regular complicity with mass government surveillance — have slammed the last-minute changes to the bill. They argued that the 11th hour expansion of the definition “specific selection term" — that which the NSA must present to a FISC judge to perform a search — has created an “unacceptable loophole that could enable the bulk collection of internet users' data."

"The bill provides no protection for non-US persons and the provisions designed to protect US persons have been extensively watered down,” Amnesty International USA said today, withdrawing support from the bill.

I have argued that, even in its less compromised form, power asymmetries around who can access our communications and personal information remain unchanged by the USA Freedom Act's proposals.

It is evident that the US government will not significantly put an end to its primary mode of social control. Yes, in the name of "security," a paranoid post-9/11 national security state birthed the programs that enabled mass dragnet spycraft. But, intentions aside, a state of totalized surveillance is the contemporary framework of political management. The networked, tracked, and watched subjects of the political now are, to borrow from Foucault, "docile bodies," trained to conformity under the (correct) assumption of constant surveillance. Legislative wrangling may re-jig where certain sites of access and observation reside, whether it be with powerful private entities or government agencies.

But Capitol Hill is no place to look for freedom from surveillance — the USA Freedom Act deals with liberty in name only.

Why Wikileaks Might Cause a Shitstorm This Week. Read more here.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard

Image via Flickr